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In an article published in the special issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology addressing dialogue, Cissna and Anderson (1994) underline the recent interest in dialogue across the human studies, namely in anthropology, philosophy, literary study, sociology, psychology, linguistics, feminist studies, and communication (p. 12). Over the past few years, this interest has reached the field of management. In fact, Peter Senge (1990), in his best-seller The Fifth Discipline, described dialogue, developed by physicist and philosopher David Bohm, as a practice to be mastered by management to acquire the discipline of team learning. Since then, organizational development practitioners have started to use Bohm's dialogue in their interventions. For some, it has become the new technique to sell to organizations in order to increase employees' creativity, transform the workplace into a community, create an esprit de corps, and so on.
I do not know if this phenomenon of co-optation is useful, but it is probably unavoidable. It carries, however, certain risks and potential costs. Among them, dialogue may be limited to becoming a means for favoring organizational learning and increasing the efficacy of organizations through the improvement of communications, the mastering of team learning, and so on. However, restricting and reducing Bohm's dialogue to a tool that can fit the traditional demands and needs of organizations limits the creative use one can make of dialogue in facing the problems confronting not only organizations but individuals and the entire society. This article addresses these issues.
More specifically, this article aims at three objectives. The first is to present Bohm's dialogue by itself, without making reference to team or organizational learning. This should allow readers to make up their own minds on the nature of dialogue, its meaning, and its purposes. The second objective is to bring to light certain differences between Bohm's dialogue and Argyris's approach. Besides the fact that it is considered a landmark in organizational learning, Argyris's approach was presented in Senge's book and served as a reference in the presentation of Bohm's dialogue. Putting these differences in evidence should help demonstrate that Bohm's dialogue should not be assimilated and restricted to a tool favoring organizational learning. As for the third objective, it is aimed at exploring, in a preliminary way, why dialogue can better serve individuals and society if it is not assimilated into action science or into the discipline of organizational learning.
PART I: BOHM'S DIALOGUE
Before getting into what dialogue is or describing its process, it is important to understand its origin. In this respect, Factor, and Garrett (1991) mention, "Our approach to this form of dialogue arose out of a series of conversations begun in 1983 in which we inquired into David Bohm's suggestion that a pervasive incoherence in the process of human thought is the essential cause of the endless crises affecting mankind" (p. 2). This statement carries two important points. The first one relates to the fact that dialogue represents a means for exploring the deep causes of the crises our society faces. The second point is that the source of these crises is identified as a pervasive defect in the process of human thought. Therefore, dialogue can be seen as an inquiry into the process of thought. Given the fact that the process of thought lies at the core of the dialogue, it is worthwhile to linger over the way Bohm describes thought and the incoherences in its functioning. Readers who are familiar with the work of philosopher Krishnamurti will find many parallels between Bohm's thinking and Krishnamurti's. That should not come as a surprise, because these two great thinkers were close friends, and this friendship lasted till Krishnamurti's death in 1986.
Thought and Its Functioning
Bohm et al. (1991) define thought in the following way:
We are using the word "thought" here to signify not only the
products of our conscious intellect but also our feelings, emotions,
intentions and desires. It also includes such subtle, conditioned
manifestations of learning as those that allow us to make sense of a
succession of separate scenes within a cinema film or to translate the
abstract symbols on road signs along with the tacit, nonverbal
processes used in developing basic, mechanical skills such as riding
a bicycle. In essence thought, in this sense of the word, is the active
response of memory in every phase of life and virtually all of our
knowledge is produced, displayed, communicated, transformed, and
applied in thought.... To further clarify this approach, we propose
that, with the aid of a little close attention, even that which we call
rational thinking can be seen to consist largely of responses
conditioned and biased by previous thought. (p. 3)
This conception of thought dismisses the stand often taken by encounter-group followers, which emphasizes "feeling at the expense of thought" and "who have jumped on the bandwagon of `Feeling = reality"' (Friedman, 1992, p. 22-23). This definition of thought brings to the fore the fact that the intellectual, emotional, sensuous, and physical responses of the memory are all aspects of one indissoluble process and that thought, considered as the response of memory, is basically mechanical in its order of operation (Bohm, 1980, p. 50): The following explanations for the incoherences in the functioning of thought will help better explain this definition.
According to Bohm, the first difficulty with thought lies in the bad use we make of our capacity for abstraction, which has degenerated into what he qualifies as fragmentation. Bohm recognizes the need to use our capacity for abstraction to deal with complex reality. Knowing is indeed built from abstractions; organizing abstractions into a hierarchy allows us to reason. Thus, abstracting is necessary for us to function in everyday life and for our mind to function. However, it seems that human beings went too far in the use they made of it. When we use our capacity for abstraction, we extract something from its context so we can better focus on its main characteristics. Bohm mentions that for an abstraction to be appropriate and pertinent, it must not extract from its context something that is very closely connected to it. But human beings have now come to the point where they divide everything, separate things into elements without taking into account the relationships of things with their contexts. This propensity to fragmentation has invaded every aspect of human life. This way of doing may be appropriate and useful in practical and technical activities, but it often becomes harmful when applied to the way human beings think of themselves and of the world in which they are living. Bohm (1980) says,
This sort of ability of man to separate himself from his environment
and to divide and apportion things ultimately led to a wide range of
negative and destructive results, because man lost awareness of
what he was doing and thus extended the process of division
beyond the limits within which it works properly. Being guided by a
fragmentary self-world view, man then acts in such a way as to try to
break himself and the world up, so that all seems to correspond to his
way of thinking. Man thus obtains an apparent proof of the
correctness of his fragmentary self-world view though, of course, he
overlooks the fact that it is he himself, acting according to his mode
of thought, who has brought about fragmentation that now seems
to have an autonomous existence, independent of his will and his
desire. (pp. 2-3)
This tendency to fragment is related to the widely held assumption that our thought process is independent and separate from its content, a fact that makes possible judgment about whether the content is correct or incorrect, rational or irrational, and so on. But, according to Bohm (1980, p. 18), fragmentation is present as much in the process as in the content of thought. For that matter, content and process are not two separate things but rather two aspects of the same movement.
But if we want to change our abstractions, our assumptions, and our prejudices, we then confront two difficulties. The first one comes when we are too attached to them and greatly identify with them. To be able to change them requires an awareness of this process of identification. The second difficulty in changing our abstractions comes from the fact that we forget that we function with abstractions and that we take them for reality, for the truth and often for the only truth that exists.
This brings us to the second problem with the functioning of thought, which is that thought is participatory. What Bohm means by this is that thought creates things but denies that they are its creations. Thought maintains that it is only reflecting what things are in reality. It asserts that we are the ones who decide what we want to do with the received information. But, according to Bohm, this is not true. He argues,